Detroit Will Win the AL Central
by Trevor Whenham - 07/02/2008
Try to think back to March for a second. In those days just before the baseball season began the Central Division of the American League seemed very straightforward. The Tigers had an impressive, expensive payroll without a serious hole, and the Indians had incredible pitching and solid bats. It seemed clear to almost everyone that it was a two-team race. Some liked Detroit and others liked Cleveland, but pretty much everyone liked one or the other. It hasn't quite worked out that way. The White Sox have defied all expectations to lead the division. The incredibly surprising Twins are close behind in second and charging hard. Detroit got off to an awful start, but they have got their acts together and are back in the hunt. The Indians? It's too early to write off a season entirely, but if the calendar turns to July and you are behind the Royals then you aren't having a good year.
We've had enough time to get used to how things have turned out in the division. Now that we are at the halfway point of the season it's time to turn our attention to the more important issue - which of these teams is going to be left standing when the season ends?
Let's start with those that aren't. Kansas City stands virtually no chance. There is some young talent to like on the team, they have some solid pitching, and they can put together a streak from time to time, but they are at least a year or two away from being relevant. A look at their recent history points out something very interesting about this division, though - they were excellent in interleague play. The Royals were 11-4 against the senior circuit, and they weren't the only team to feast on the National League. The White Sox were 9-6, and they finished off with a sweep of the Cubs. Minnesota lost just twice in their 15 games. Detroit only had one more loss. The Indians, with a 6-9 record, were the only team in the division to struggle. The teams they lost series to are a clear sign of just how bad this team is this year - Cincinnati, San Francisco and Colorado. All in all, interleague play was a sign of two things - the National League isn't that strong, and this division deserves some respect.
The other team that doesn't stand a chance of winning is Cleveland. Not only are they in last place and far below.500, but their struggles against the weakest of National League teams shows that this team is far from at their best. The likely departure of C.C. Sabathia at the trade deadline certainly won't help their cause, either.
The White Sox are in the driver's seat. They have a 2.5-game lead on the Twins and five on the Tigers as I write. I don't like their chances of staying on top, though. They are playing a very streaky style of game right now - they have won five in a row, but had lost 10 of 15 before that. They aren't playing well on the road, either - they are 2-10 in their last 12 away from home. I don't expect a total collapse, and I have a lot more faith in Ozzie Guillen than a lot of people seem to, but even their most determined fan has to admit that, given their rotation, they have overachieved up to this point in the season. They have enjoyed as much pitching consistency as any team in the league - their top five starters have made all but one start. It's impressive that none of those pitchers has a losing record, but only one - Gavin Floyd at 9-4 - has more than one more win than they have lost.
Speaking of overachieving - let's look at the Twins. Their story is almost unbelievable. On June 10 they were three games below .500 and wallowing through a six-game losing streak. They went on to win 14 of their next 18 to get to where they are now. They have been impressive, but they almost certainly won't be there in the end. Four of their six regular starters have ERAs over 4.05, only two of their hitters are over .300, and they just don't have the fuel to stay in this fight until the end. They are at the peak of a streak here. Sooner or later they will fall back to a more reasonable level of play, and that should keep them out of the picture.
That leaves us with the Tigers. They are riding at the peak of a streak as well, but unlike the Twins I think that the Tigers can sustain it to some extent. They have won 18 of their last 22. They won't keep up that pace, but they have been winning more by playing like we expected them to from the start of the season then by playing beyond themselves. Even after this streak every major offensive player is well below last year's offensive levels. That means that there is still room to grow. Justin Verlander is just a shell of what he was last year, but he is 2-0 in his last four starts, he has allowed two or fewer earned runs in seven of his last nine starts, and he's looking like the first several weeks of this season was just a bad dream. He's not the only one to get his act together - Nate Robertson is 5-1 in his last seven, Armando Galaragga has lost just once since May 2, the ancient Kenny Rogers has lost once in a month and a half, and Jeremy Bonderman was improving before he was injured. This is a team on the way up.
If it's not obvious enough already, I think that Detroit will win the AL Central. I'm not the only one. Despite the fact that they are in third place, Bodog gives them a much better chance than the second place Twins to win the American League (15/2 compared to 16/1). Even though the White Sox have a five game head start with half a season to play, they are in a virtual dead heat with the Tigers - 7/1 to 15/2. My best guess is that a lot of other American League teams are hoping that I am wrong.